A dignified way to mark Bannockburn anniversary Harry ReidColumnistTuesday 26 March 2013
Now we know the date of the referendum on Scotland's future we can anticipate an action–packed summer next year.
The main events, apart from the ever-intensifying debate about independence, will be Homecoming, the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. I'm certain the Games, in particular, will be an enormous success, an event of warmth, goodwill and international camaraderie.
I'm not so sure about the Bannockburn anniversary. Coming just three months before the referendum, it could all too easily be a focus for glib and unfortunate anti-English triumphalism. I hope the SNP Government will manage the anniversary celebrations so they are conducted in a dignified and sensible fashion.
The Duke of Wellington, one of Britain's greatest generals, was once approached by a society dame who said: "Duke, what a glorious thing a military victory must be!" The old soldier, noted for his dryness, gave her a very hard look and said: "Saddest thing in all the world mam, save for a defeat."
In that was the experienced military man's realism. All big battles, victories or defeats, are bloody and horrible. Any retrospective celebration should be careful and restrained. Without doubt, some battles have a benign residue. But I'm not sure the Battle of Bannockburn had any long-term beneficial residue. OK, the English army of King Edward II was roundly defeated by the troops of King Robert, and its remnants were sent home, if not exactly to think again, then certainly to wipe their wounds and regroup.
But did the victory achieve anything of lasting significance? It did firmly establish King Robert as Scotland's monarch. But King Edward II, even in defeat, still would not recognise him as king of an independent country. Within 20 years of Bannockburn a large English force landed in Fife and rampaged freely around Perth. Then the key Border town of Berwick was ceded back to the English, and not long after that England gave Scotland a terrible beating at Halidon Hill.
There are many erudite studies of Bannockburn and its aftermath. One of the most perceptive was written by Aryeh Nusbacher a dozen years ago. He was writing as a military rather than as a social historian, but nonetheless he put the battle into a wider context. He made some effective points; notably that Scotland at the time was nothing like a mature nation-state but rather a messy construct of feuding mini-armies, or even tribes – a loose network of patriarchal groups.
After the victory Scotland remained divided and in some ways broken, with the Highlands and Borders being particularly anarchic and lawless. It's true Scotland was developing its own distinctive culture and its own institutions but this was a meandering and uncertain process that took centuries. Bannockburn did not allow Scotland to become a smoothly functioning independent state with a unified economy. As for England, it was a feudal kingdom – and it continued, for many generations, to be a very dangerous foe to its northern neighbours.
Anyway, as Scotland now contends for independence, we should not obsess about relations with England. I'd truly like Scotland to be independent and genuinely believe such an outcome would, in time, greatly benefit Scotland. But here's an equally important consideration: I think Scottish independence would benefit England too. Independence for Scotland should never, ever be presented as some kind of "victory" over England. Rather it would be that rare thing, an authentic win-win, a victory for both nations.
If England were to become "independent" it would be, I'm certain, of considerable cultural and social benefit to the English. They would be able to differentiate more easily between what it is to be English and what it is to be British, and they might recover a mature, considered patriotism, something better than the "little Englander" anti-European prejudice which is all too prevalent right now.
The Battle of Bannockburn by Aryeh Nusbacher (Tempus Publishing).